President Donald Trump’s embattled former lawyer Michael Cohen dealt a damaging blow to his ex-client Tuesday, pleading guilty in Manhattan federal court to campaign finance crimes in 2016 for paying two women for their silence “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate.”
Cohen didn’t name the recipients during his plea, but the amounts — $130,000 and $150,000 — matched reported payments made by Cohen to porn star Stormy Daniels and arranged from the National Enquirer to model Karen McDougal to keep alleged affairs with Trump secret.
Trump was described only as the “candidate” in Cohen’s guilty plea before U.S. District Judge William Pauley, and as an “Individual-1” who became president in charging documents, but Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis was more explicit after the plea.
“Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election,” Davis said. “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump.”
Trump said Wednesday that he wouldn't recommend Cohen as a lawyer, tweeting, "If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!"
Trump, blasted almost simultaneously with news of Cohen’s plea and the conviction of former campaign manager Paul Manafort in Virginia on bank and tax fraud charges, didn’t respond to shouted questions about Cohen as he arrived in West Virginia for a campaign rally.
But his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said later in a statement that the government charges had made “no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president” and referenced a press statement from Manhattan U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami to question Cohen’s credibility.
“It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time,” Giuliani said.
Cohen, 51, a key part of Trump’s inner circle and an official in the Trump Organization for over a decade, had been under investigation since his home and office were raided last April for potential crimes relating to the Daniels payment and fraud in his personal business relating to income from his ownership of New York City taxi medallions.
During his 45-minute plea hearing, Cohen was subdued, taking deep breaths before speaking and at times halting and hesitant in answering questions. When asked a standard question about recent drug or alcohol use, he said he drank Glenlivet 12 scotch on Monday. When Pauley asked if that was customary, Cohen answered, “No, your honor.”
In addition to the hush money payments, Cohen also pleaded to five counts of tax evasion for not reporting $4 million in income from his medallion business, and lying to get bank loans by not disclosing liabilities relating to the medallions. Pauley said he faces up to 65 years in prison, and advisory federal guidelines call for 46 to 63 months in prison.
Cohen was released pending a Dec. 12 sentencing after the plea. The government did not disclose whether he has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and Cohen’s lawyer declined to comment. Cohen’s plea agreement did not contain a cooperation provision..
Cohen’s case was referred to prosecutors in Manhattan by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian election interference. After the April raids, a judge ordered a protracted independent review to make sure prosecutors didn’t view items subject to attorney-client privilege. That review ended Tuesday, with 7154 items deemed privileged.
But Cohen began signaling last month that his loyalty to Trump might be at an end. “I put family and country first,” he said in an early July interview with ABC, just before his lawyers released a recording of a conversation with Trump they said was about the National Enquirer payment to former Playboy model McDougal.
In his plea, Cohen left little doubt about one key legal question — whether the money-for-silence payments were personal matters to protect Trump’s family, or whether they related to his presidential campaign, which would have required public disclosure under election laws.
“I participated in this conduct,” he said, “…for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
In the case of the payment to McDougal so the Enquirer could quash her story, Cohen pleaded guilty to causing an illegal corporate contribution. In the case of Daniels, he pleaded guilty to using proceeds of a home-equity loan to make a campaign contribution in excess of legal limits through a shell corporation.
In both cases, as a packed courtroom listened in hushed silence, he also made it clear the “candidate” was complicit.
“In coordination with, and at the direction of, a candidate for federal office,” he said of the $150,000 payment, “I and the CEO of a media company at the request of the candidate worked together to keep an individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign from publicly disclosing this information.”
The charges filed by prosecutors added additional details to the payments, alleging that after the $130,000 payment to Daniels, Cohen filed invoices for “legal services” with the Trump Organization which “topped off” the cost and added a bonus that came to $420,000.
There was no indication Tuesday whether Mueller will meet with Cohen as part of his Russia investigation. A dossier paid for in part by Democrats in 2016 claimed that Cohen met with Russians in Prague to discuss election meddling, but he has denied that allegation.
In addition, at the same time Cohen’s lawyers released his recorded conversation with Trump in July, several news organizations reported Cohen was prepared to say the president knew about a controversial 2016 meeting his son had in Trump Tower with Russians who offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
After Cohen’s plea he declined to comment and was whisked through a mob of photographers into a waiting Buick at the entrance to the lower Manhattan courthouse to chants from hecklers of “lock him up” just moments before Khuzami stepped to a nearby microphone.
The prosecutor made no reference to Trump, but said the failure to report the payments on campaign finance filings was no small matter, saying the laws “are designed to prevent use of illegal money in elections and to maintain the integrity of those elections.”
“We are a nation of laws,” Khuzami said, “and the essence of what this case is about is justice and that is an equal playing field for all persons in the eyes of the law.”
— Matthew Chayes and Laura Figueroa contributed to this story.
TIMELINE OF THE MICHAEL COHEN CASE
2007: Michael Cohen, a Lawrence native, joins Trump Organization and becomes executive vice president and special counsel.
2007 – 2018: Serves as Trump’s “fixer,” who aggressively troubleshoots problems for the real estate mogul who becomes 45th president of the United States.
August 2016: A former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 by American Media Inc. for the rights to her allegations that she had an affair with Donald Trump. She claimed in a lawsuit settled in 2018 that Cohen had played a role in crafting the deal.
October 2016: A few weeks before the presidential election, Cohen makes $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known professionally as Stormy Daniels, to persuade the performer not to speak publicly about a months-long affair she has since said she had with Donald Trump, starting in 2006.
Cohen claims he paid Clifford $130,000 out of his own pocket.
Clifford sues to dissolve the nondisclosure agreement reached in October 2016 about her alleged affair with Donald Trump.
Clifford offered to return $130,000 she received from Cohen in 2016 for agreeing not to discuss the alleged relationship in order to dissolve an agreement to keep quiet about the affair she said began in 2006 and lasted for months.
Clifford sues Cohen for defamation
Cohen filed $20 million lawsuit against Clifford for violation of terms of the non-disclosure agreement with the president.
McDougal sues to free herself from non-disclosure agreement
Trump and a company affiliated with him file court papers to force Clifford’s dispute over the terms of Cohen’s $130,000 payment to her be settled through private arbitration.
The FBI raids Cohen’s office and hotel room seizing documents identified in a warrant investigating possible bank fraud. Trump denounces the raid as an, “attack on our country” and “disgraceful.”
McDougal reaches an agreement in her lawsuit against American Media Inc. that frees her from a contract barring her from speaking about an alleged affair she had with Donald Trump. The lawsuit claimed Cohen had played a role in the deal.
Trump financial documents reveal he had reimbursed Cohen for payment to Clifford.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani says on a Fox News show that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 payment to Clifford, to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair."
Trump tweets: "Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA...The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her [Daniels] about an affair despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair."
Cohen in interview with ABC News splits with Trump, saying he is most loyal to family and country.
Reports in The New York Times say Cohen secretly recorded a conversation with Trump on payment to McDougal two months before the presidential election.
Aug. 21, 2018: Cohen admits in federal court that he had arranged payments to Clifford and McDougal on Trump’s behalf as he pleads guilty to eight counts including tax fraud, making false statements to a bank and campaign finance violations.
Compiled by Zachary R. Dowdy with Caroline Curtin